Summary and book reviews of Horse Heaven by Jane Smiley

Horse Heaven

By Jane Smiley

Horse Heaven
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  • Hardcover: Apr 2000,
    456 pages.
    Paperback: Feb 2001,
    576 pages.

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Book Summary

"It's not true," says a character in Jane Smiley's funny, passionate, and brilliant new novel of horse racing, "that anything can happen at the racetrack," but many astonishing and affecting things do -- and in Horse Heaven, we find them woven into a marvelous tapestry of joy and love, chicanery, folly, greed, and derring-do.

Haunting, exquisite Rosalind Maybrick, wife of a billionaire owner, one day can't quite decide what it is she wants, and discovers too late that her whole life is transformed . . . Twenty-year-old Tiffany Morse, stuck in her job at Wal-Mart, prays, "Please make something happen here . . . This time, I mean it," and something does . . . Farley, a good trainer in a bad slump; Buddy, a ruthless trainer who can't seem to lose even though he knows that his personal salvation depends upon it; Roberto, an apprentice jockey who has "the hands" but is growing too big for his dream career with every passing day; Leo the gambler and his earnest son, Jesse, who understands everything about his father's "system" except why it doesn't work; Elizabeth, the sixty-two-year-old theorist of sex and animal communication, and her best friend, Joy, the mare manager at the ranch at the center of the universe--all are woven together by the horses that pass among them: two colts and two fillies who begin with the promise of talent and breeding, and now might or might not achieve stardom.

There are the geldings -- Justa Bob, the plain brown horse who always wins by a nose, a lovable claimer who passes from owner to owner on a heart-wrenching journey down from the winner's circle; and the beautiful Mr. T., raced in France and rescued in Texas, who is discovered to have some unusual and amazing talents.

And then there is the Jack Russell terrier, Eileen, a dog with real convictions -- and the will to implement them.

The strange, compelling, sparkling, and mysterious universe of horse racing that has fascinated generations of punters and robber barons, horse-lovers and wits, has never before been depicted with such verve and originality, such tenderness, such clarity, and, above all, such sheer exuberance.

JACK RUSSELL


On the second Sunday morning in November, the day after the Breeders' Cup at Hollywood Park (which he did not get to this year, because the trek to the West Coast seemed a long one from Westchester County and he didn't have a runner, had never had a runner, how could this possibly be his fault, hadn't he spent millions breeding, training, and running horses? Wasn't it time he had a runner in the Breeders' Cup or got out of the game altogether, one or the other?), Alexander P. Maybrick arose from his marriage bed at 6:00 a.m., put on his robe and slippers, and exited the master suite he shared with his wife, Rosalind. On the way to the kitchen, he passed the library, his office that adjoined the library, the weight room, the guest bathroom, the living room, and the dining room. In every room his wife had laid a Persian carpet of exceptional quality -- his wife had an eye for quality in all things -- and it seemed like every Persian carpet in every ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
  1. Introducing her work as a "comic epic poem in prose," Ms. Smiley warns her readers that the characters and events in Horse Heavenare no more than "figments of the author's imaginings," and that "their characteristics as represented bear no relation to real life." Discuss the levels of irony in her remark. Also, how does the description of genre fit or mislead?

  2. Most characters in Horse Heavenare struggling with the issue of identity. What makes the matter more pressing for some than for others? What approaches frustrate or facilitate attempts at clarity? How is the issue different for the horses than for the humans? What role do places and other beings play as a character tries to navigate the world within?

  3. Ms. Smiley plays ...
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Reviews

Media Reviews
The Washington Post

One of the premier novelists of her generation,, possessed of a mastery of craft and an uncompromising vision that grow more powerful with each book . . . Racing's eclectic mix of classes and personalities provides Smiley with fertile soil . . . Expertly juggling storylines, she investigates the sexual, social, psychological, and spiritual problems of wealthy owners, working-class bettors, trainers on the edge of financial ruin, and, in a typically bold move, horses.

The New York Times Book Review

Witty, energetic . . . It's deeply satisfying to read a work of fiction so informed about its subject and so alive to every nuance and detail . . . [Smiley's] final chapters have a wonderful restorative quality."

Kirkus Reviews

A fast-paced, fetchingly detailed, wide-angled view of the world of horse breeding-and-racingand another lively illustration of Smiley's industrious literary work-ethic and gift for transmuting the products of her obviously extensive research into compelling fiction....The anthropomorphism occasionally verges on feyness ...But there are few such missteps, and in general the story prances along right smartly. Several horses here are given such names as Nureyev, Lorenzo de Medici, and Ivan Boesky. If one named Jane Smiley ever shows up in the racing form, you might just want to bet the farm on her.

Booklist - Donna Seaman

Smiley's horses almost steal the show from the humans in this symphonic celebration of the byzantine world of thoroughbred horse racing--although a mischievous Jack Russell terrier named Eileen rules supreme whenever the all-seeing narrative eye pans her way.....This is indeed a big, busy, book, but there is peace at its center.

Reader Reviews
ANNMARIE CROSS

What a hoot of a book! Yes, it is fiction and misses a few points of reality at a race track, but nothing that matters at all for what it is supposed to be. Want second by second reality at a race track? read Race for the Triple Crown by Joe Drape. ...   Read More

arlene walsh

Fascinating look at the world of thoroughbreds. Had no idea there was so much involved in breeding, raising and racing them, not to mention the buying and selling that goes on. Sometimes a sad account of where the ones who no longer have value end up...   Read More

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